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VENTURA COUNTY

Murder Defendant Portrayed as Dupe

Lawyer for Bridget Callahan, accused of helping kill a teen girl in 1998, says she was the unwitting accomplice of two skinheads.

October 29, 2002|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Murder defendant Bridget Callahan obediently stood guard as two skinhead thugs beat and slashed a teenage girl to death in a motel bathroom four years ago, her lawyer conceded Monday.

But attorney Joseph O'Neill insisted in his opening statement to a Superior Court jury that Callahan never intended to harm the girl.

O'Neill portrayed his client as the diminutive dupe of violent skinhead gang members, and later the victim of ambitious law enforcement officers out to crack an unsolved homicide. From start to finish, O'Neill said, "Ms. Callahan does what she is told."

But Deputy Atty. Gen. Michael Katz told jurors that evidence will show Callahan was not "a naive little girl," but a woman entrenched in the violent and racist skinhead subculture who knowingly participated in the October 1998 slaying of 17-year-old Nichole Hendrix in Ventura.

Callahan, a 30-year-old Ventura resident, faces one count of first-degree murder and allegations that the slaying was gang-related and occurred during a robbery and kidnapping. She faces 25 years to life in prison if convicted.

Katz also told jurors that there will be no evidence to support the defense allegations of law enforcement deception and coercion.

"They don't make any promises to her," Katz said. "You're not going to hear any evidence at all that they tricked her."

Katz suggested that the only person deceived was Hendrix. According to prosecutors, the teen was drugged and kidnapped by her friend, Callahan, and skinheads David Ziesmer, 29, and Michael Bridgeford, 25, so they could fence stolen goods in her possession.

Upon awakening in a "sleazy" Ventura motel room, Hendrix made a phone call, Katz said. Ziesmer and Bridgeford mistakenly thought the girl was reporting them to police and decided to kill her, the prosecutor said.

After the slaying, Hendrix's body was packed into a trash can filled with wet cement and dumped into the Ventura County back country. When it was recovered six months later, animals had dragged away most of the remains.

Callahan is the first to stand trial.

Testimony began Monday after two years of legal skirmishes and political tumult.

Callahan, Ziesmer and Bridgeford were all indicted on murder charges in August 2000 after admitting to stabbing Hendrix.

But the indictments were later thrown out or dismissed by prosecutors after a Santa Barbara County judge found the Ventura County Grand Jury contained too few women and was therefore "defective."

Meanwhile, Callahan's lawyer pushed to have the charges against her dismissed, arguing that prosecutors deceived her with false promises of immunity. That prompted the state attorney general to try the case.

During a court hearing in July, Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh, who had handled the case earlier, testified that authorities knew Callahan was a murder suspect but continued to treat her as a witness without informing her she was a suspect.

After the hearing, Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr. found there was no evidence of prosecutorial misconduct and denied the defense request to throw out the charges.

Bamieh has been subpoenaed as a defense witness. The defense also intends to call a psychologist who examined Callahan last year and concluded that she feared for her life as Hendrix was being killed in the motel bathroom.

Prosecutors called two witnesses Monday who testified that they heard Callahan tell Ziesmer hours before the slaying that she had drugged Hendrix.

According to their testimony, Callahan told Ziesmer: "I just gave her some pills, and she should be knocked out soon."

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